June 19, 2003

What's going on with Torii?

Torii Hunter, the star of the Minnesota Twins and one of the most exciting players in all of baseball, is currently third among AL outfielders in voting for the all-star game and will likely be the American League's starting centerfielder for the second straight season.

That's the good news. The bad news is that Torii Hunter's numbers this season are nowhere near where they were last year at this time.

Through June 19th:

Year     AB     AVG     OBP     SLG    HR    2B    BB    SO    SB    CS

2002 275 .302 .348 .560 16 19 21 62 9 2
2003 258 .252 .329 .430 9 15 29 48 2 7

Perhaps the most disturbing drop-off has been his stolen base totals. Last year at this time, Torii Hunter was 9/11 (82%) on stolen bases and he ended up going 23/31 (74%) overall in 2002. So far this year, he is 2/9 (22%) and he actually started the season 0/7.

Often times, a sudden loss of base-stealing ability is a red-flag for bigger problems with a player, particularly one that plays a premium defensive position like Hunter does. In Hunter's case though, I am not that concerned.

First of all, prior to 2002, he wasn't a good base-stealer. He went 9/15 (60%) in 2001 and was 23/39 (59%) combined from 1997-2001. He was even a horrendous base-stealer in the minor leagues, going 59/105 (56%).

Second, I have watched just about every Twins game this entire season, whether on TV or in-person, and it is obvious to me that not only has Torii Hunter not "lost a step," but that he is actually faster and more mobile than he was last season - at least on defense. That said, baserunning - whether that is stealing bases or just traveling around them - has never been Torii's strong suit. So far this year he's made several bonehead blunders on the bases, including getting doubled off of second base in the late innings twice in a two-week span.

Torii Hunter's base-stealing problems this season are just part of a team-wide epidemic, one that stems all the way back to last season. In 2002, the Minnesota Twins stole 79 bases and were caught 62 times. That works out to 56% success-rate, which is scientifically known as "real bad."

The Twins' 62 caught stealings were the 4th-most of any team in major league baseball last year, despite the fact that their successful steals (79) ranked just 19th. In fact, Minnesota's stolen base percentage (56%) was the worst in major league baseball last season. And that was despite the fact that they pride themselves on being a team that "does the little things" and they were actually pretty good at stealing bases the previous year.

The Twins were caught stealing 62 times in 2002 and stole 79 bases. Back in 2001, they were caught stealing 67 times and stole 146 bases.

This year, Minnesota's work on the bases started off much better. After going 14/27 (52%) in April of 2002, they were 11/16 (69%) in April this season. And then it all started going downhill. The Twins went 15/26 (57%) in May and are 9/15 (60%) so far in June. They are 35/57 (61%) overall this season, which is slightly better than how they did last season, but is still "real bad."

Torii's 2/9 is a big part of the team's struggles, but he's not alone.

Here are the biggest offenders:

Player              SB     CS

Torii Hunter 2 7
Cristian Guzman 4 5
Luis Rivas 5 4

It's not like A.J. Pierzynski has suddenly started to try to run a lot and is getting thrown out - those are the 3 main base-stealers on the team. Hunter had a very good year stealing bags last season, and Rivas and Guzman are the two fastest players on the team. Yet, the 3 are a combined 11/27 (41%), which is beyond horrendous.

While Torii Hunter has, by far, the worst success-rate among the 3, his struggles are not as troubling to me as Guzman's. I got the feeling that the Twins were going to "send" Torii until he finally broke through and got that first stolen base and, after a while, it was almost comical - or would have been, if it hadn't been so sad.

But Cristian Guzman is one of the fastest players in all of baseball. Yet, over the last 2 seasons, he is now 16/34 (47%) stealing bases. That is mind-boggling to me. Anyone who has watched the Twins for any length of time and has seen Guzman smack a ball into the gap and end the play sliding into third with a triple can see what amazing speed the man has. And he's actually been quite successful stealing bases in the past. He was 25/33 (76%) in 2001 and 28/38 (74%) in 2000.

Cristian Guzman has a bit of a reputation among Twins fans as being a very lazy ballplayer. He almost never appears to be giving "110 percent" - whether it is short-arming ground balls up the middle, lobbing throws over to first base or - in this case - getting thrown out on steal attempt after steal attempt after...well, you get the point.

I have actually defended Guzman in the past. In fact, here is what I wrote about him in my Twins season preview for Baseball Primer:

"In Guzman's defense, I do think a lot of his disappointing play over the last season and a half has been due to various injuries. At times over the past two seasons it seems as though Guzman is simply being lazy on defense; making lazy, off-target throws to first base, not bending enough on routine grounders and occasionally letting one go right through his legs and simply not showing the range he showed when he first came up in 1999. I believe Guzman is a little lackadaisical by nature, but I also think a lot of that "laziness" is actually the effects of leg and foot injuries.

When you look at his stolen base and triples totals, it becomes painfully obvious that Guzman has something wrong with him:

2000 + 2nd half of 2001 = 45/61 in stolen bases (74%) with 33 triples in 998 at bats (1 every 30 ABs).

2nd half of 2001 + 2002 = 20/35 in stolen bases (57%) with 7 triples in 769 at bats (1 every 110 ABs).

There was nothing more exciting than watching Cristian Guzman smack a line drive into the gap someplace and seeing him sprint around the bases, knowing full well he'd be sliding into third base before the play was over. Cristian Guzman has not been the same player since he came back from the all-star game in 2001."

What Guzman has done so far this season has done nothing but confuse me even more about his situation. I still believe that his decline in stolen base percentage and sudden loss of the ability to hit triples were the result of some injuries to his legs. That said, I don't know how I can continue to believe in that theory if Guzman continues to do what he has done so far this year.

Cristian Guzman is on pace to go 9/21 (43%) on stolen bases this year (so far, so good on the theory) and he's on pace to hit 21 triples (D'oh!).

I'm really not sure how to logically explain this. That exciting player that I talked about, smacking line drives into gaps and sprinting around second base on his way to a triple, is back this year. He's not settling for stand-up doubles like he did so often last season and just about everytime he has hit a ball into the gap and I have thought, "I wonder if he will try for a triple," he has tried and he's been successful.

Yet, when he is standing on first base, he simply cannot make it to second base before the ball gets there from the catcher. And it's starting to get pathetic.

The other night, against the Royals, Corey Koskie was at the plate and Guzman was on first base after drawing a rare walk. With one out and the count 3-2, Guzman took off for second base. Koskie took a called third strike and Guzman, for some unknown reason, went into a light jog halfway to second base. Kansas City's catcher, Brent Mayne, saw Guzman pulling up and, instead of throwing to second right away, he double-clutched the ball, no doubt wondering for a split-second what the heck was going on. After double-clutching, Mayne finally threw down to second base - and the ball beat Guzman there by 5 feet.

This was not some busted hit and run. And this was not some Ivan Rodriguez super-laser-throw down to second base, this was a Brent Mayne throw, after it was delayed when he double-clutched. And not only was Guzman out on the play, it wasn't particularly close.

Obviously that is just one bad play on Guzman's part and he actually stole a base against the Royals yesterday. That said, if Ron Gardenhire and the Minnesota Twins are going to continue to insist on being a "running team," they better get their [expletive deleted] together. They have already given away way too many outs on the basepaths over the last year and a half and the risk is so far from coming close to being worth the reward at this point it's pathetic.

Hey, wasn't this entry supposed to be about Torii Hunter?! Why yes, thanks for reminding me...

Torii's numbers are down almost across the board this year. His batting average is down 50 points and his OPS is 100 points lower than it was last year. Let's take a little closer look at why he's down:

Year     AB/HR     AB/2B     AB/1B

2002 19.3 15.2 6.1
2003 28.7 17.2 6.6

Like I said, his numbers are down across the board. He's hitting about 49% fewer homers, 13% fewer doubles and 8% fewer singles.

Actually, 8% fewer singles is what I would consider within the limits of "luck." I mean, if 3 bloops off of Torii's bat that were caught had fallen for singles, he'd be right at last year's level. The 13% drop in doubles is a little troubling, although still within the reach of luck. The nearly 50% decrease is homers, on the other hand, is definitely concerning.

While his overall numbers are down considerably, the one area of Hunter's game that is definitely improved is his plate discipline and strike zone judgment.

Year     PA/BB     PA/SO

2002 17.26 5.12
2003 10.07 6.08

I have been extremely impressed with the improvements Hunter has made with his plate discipline this year. He has been laying off pitches that he almost always swung at (and missed) in the past. The high fastballs on the outer half of the plate, those 0-2 sliders in the dirt - where Torii would have whiffed on them in the past, he is just spitting on them this year and keeping at bats alive. And the results are definitely apparent.

Torii is walking 75% more often, which is huge. He is also striking out in about 19% fewer of his plate appearances, which is also significant.

The sad thing about the big improvements he has made in his plate discipline is that I fear he will go back to his old, hacking ways because his overall numbers are down. And who knows, maybe Torii Hunter would have better numbers this year if he wasn't walking more, wasn't laying off those bad pitches and was just swinging at anything that looked good to him like he did in the past. It's certainly possible, but I doubt it.

I am hoping Torii has some patience and is willing to stick with what is no doubt a real effort on his part to change his approach at the plate. His numbers are down right now, but, in the long-run, I think being more selective at the plate and getting better pitches to hit will pay big dividends for him.

Torii's on-base percentage is .329 right now, just 4 points worse than it was last season, despite his batting average being 37 points worse. As soon as a few more of those singles start dropping, Hunter's OBP is going to be nearing .350, which is what I would consider a "good" on-base percentage - and that is a number he has never even been close to approaching before.

Hunter is on pace to walk 67 in 155 games this season. From 2001-2002 combined, Hunter walked a grand-total of 64 times in 296 games. That's a significant change and something I think Twins fans should be very excited about. It may be difficult to look past his down overall numbers to see an improvement in plate discipline, but it is there, it is significant and it is going to make Torii Hunter a better offensive player.

Other Twins thoughts...

The Twins avoided a 4-game sweep at the hands of the Royals by spanking them 16-2 yesterday afternoon. Had the Royals won, they would have moved into a first-place tie with the Twins, something I didn't think was even a possibility a week ago.

Unfortunately, the game wasn't on TV, because I sure would have liked watching a nice 16-2 win after watching them lose 5 straight to Kansas City and Arizona. Actually, just looking at the boxscore makes me feel a little better.

The Twins had 23 hits, including 4 from Guzman, 3 each from Jacque Jones, Hunter and Doug Mientkiewicz, and a monster, 4-5/2 HR/6 RBI game from Corey Koskie. Corey is currently batting .305/.406/.481 and is on pace to drive in 100+ runs and score 95. I would really love to see Koskie make the all-star team this year and I think he'd be a deserving selection. At 29, he is the Twins' elder statesman among hitters and he's been a very underrated player his whole career (he's a career .285/.378/.457 hitter that has turned himself into an excellent defensive third baseman).

Joe Mays had a nice start, eating 8 innings while allowing just 2 runs, both after the game was well out of hand. Mays improved his record to 8-4 on the season, which is amazing considering he has a 5.48 ERA. Of course, when your team scores you 16 runs, it's pretty easy to get the win. And the Twins have been doing some serious hitting when Mays has been on the mound the whole year.

Counting yesterday's 16-run outburst, the Twins have scored 6.0 runs per game in Mays' 15 starts. Even without yesterday's game they were averaging 5.3 runs per Mays start. In the games Mays has not started in 2003, the Twins are averaging 4.8 runs per game - 25% fewer than they have scored for Mays.

Meanwhile, Kyle Lohse has a 3.23 ERA in 14 starts this year and is just 6-4. The Twins have scored 4.6 runs per game when he pitchers - 30% fewer than they've scored for Mays.

I'm not sure what my point is, or even if I have one, but I just thought that was interesting. A pitcher's won/loss-record is one of the most misleading statistics in all of baseball, regardless of what Joe Morgan might have you believe.

Not only can a pitcher on a good offensive team like the Yankees have his record inflated because of run-support while a pitcher on the Tigers gets hurt by his team's lack of offense, but two pitchers on the same team can receive completely different run-support.

Next time someone starts talking about how a pitcher just "knows how to win" or they make the argument that a pitcher with a 4.20 ERA is better than someone with a 3.05 ERA because the first guy has more wins, just role your eyes, smile and nod your head. You give Kyle Lohse the run-support Joe Mays has had this year and he's probably 10-2 and getting a feature-article written about him in Sports Illustrated. Meanwhile, you give Joe Mays the run-support Kyle Lohse has had and he's probably 2-10 and Johan Santana might already have that rotation spot he deserves.

One final Twins note...

In the midst of the blowout yesterday, Bobby Kielty replaced Dustan Mohr out in right field at the start of the 7th inning and grounded out in his only at bat to drop his season batting average to .251. As you all know, I think Bobby Kielty is an excellent, underrated, underutilized baseball player. That said, as big a Kielty-fan as I am and much as I have been singing his praises over the last 2 years, I am little worried about his performance of late.

Kielty hit .324/.425/.588 in May, forcing his way into the mix as an everyday player in the process. Then he injured a muscle in his ribcage and was unable to play the field for several weeks. During that time, he struggled offensively as well, hitting .214/.371/.400 in April. Now, it's a credit to Kielty's power and plate discipline that he was able to have a .371 OBP and a .400 SLG in April while batting just .214, but his struggles at the plate have continued into June and have actually gotten much worse.

So far this month, he is hitting just .182/.250/.182. He has just 3 walks in 36 plate appearances and has struck out in 30% of his at bats. He hasn't had an extra-base hit since May 27th - a span of 44 at bats. Prior to this 44 at bat dry-spell, Kielty had smacked an extra-base hit every 8.5 at bats and he had an extra-base hit once every 9.9 at bats last season.

Basically, I am officially concerned. Bobby is too good a hitter to have gone 44 at bats without an extra-base hit and he's too good to have a .250 OBP this month. I don't know if the ribcage injury is still a problem or if it is bothering him at the plate or what, but something definitely isn't right with Bobby Kielty. And it's a shame, because he had finally started to convince Gardenhire that he was deserving of everyday playing time, but now Dustan Mohr is back as the regular right fielder and Justin Morneau is taking most of the at bats at DH.

Kielty's struggles have been painful for me to watch, not only as a Twins fan, but as someone who has been his biggest supporter. I am starting to understand how those Luis Rivas-supporters must feel!

Thanks for stopping by today and have a good weekend. I might be back with an entry on Saturday or Sunday but, if not, I'll see you Monday. In the meantime, make sure to check out my latest Bi-Weekly Review of the American League Central article over at Baseball Primer.

Bi-Weekly Review: A.L. Central (by Aaron Gleeman)

And if you missed a blog entry or two from earlier this week, here's your chance to check them out:

Monday: The Boys of Moneyball

Tuesday: Learning to fly

Wednesday: The last of a dying breed?

Thursday: 100,000

Oh, and don't forget to send me your "frequently asked questions" like I asked for yesterday. Don't know what I'm talking about? Click here to learn more.

Today's picks:

Chicago (Garland) +110 over Chicago (Estes)

Toronto (Lidle) -100 over Montreal (Vazquez)

New York (Pettitte) -150 New York (Trachsel)

Atlanta (Maddux) -170 over Baltimore (Ponson)

Total to date: + $1,310

W/L record: 141-137 (4-3 yesterday for +70)

*****Comments? Questions? Email me!*****

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